Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Discussion about the New Testament, apocrypha, gnostics, church fathers, Christian origins, historical Jesus or otherwise, etc.
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Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 4:46 pm

Many of us approach this subject with the interest, among other things, towards finding what we can to answer our curiosity regarding the subject of the historicity of Jesus - whether any such man existed, whether we have evidence of anything regarding it. Some others also approach it looking for their talking points, whether they've decided for or against the historicity of Jesus. All in all, it's a fairly contentious subject with a wide audience.

It has a lot of analogy with the debate over the existence of God, despite drawing on entirely different disciplines (history instead of philosophy), and this might partly be due to the fact that membership of these two debates has some overlap (even if a person isn't interested in both at the same time, there's a good chance they were interested in one or the other in the past). And with that analogy, I would point out that the arguments have been pretty well-rehearsed in all directions by the philosophers. And the analogy kind of breaks down because there hasn't been as extensive a literature just covering the arguments, their strengths, and their flaws when it comes to the historicity of Jesus.

These arguments might seem trite to long-time participants to the debate, but it is a danger to become inured to a line of thought through over-exposure. We should be careful of confirmation bias, whereby we shape our evaluation of the evidence subconsciously by elevating that which agrees with us and reflexively putting down that which does not.

And so, without further ado, let's get into some of the basic talking points, trying to go over as many as possible briefly.

Against the Historicity of Jesus

(1) I don't think you can talk about this, at least not at this point of the debate, without mentioning Earl Doherty's review of the emphasis and language he finds in several documents to speak of Jesus Christ in such a way as not to place him on earth. I can't really summarize that here, so I'll just use a hyperlink to his online presentation of the case.

(2) While he doesn't get as much attention as Doherty, Detering has been publishing in an attempt to revive the Dutch Radical hypothesis. Essentially, he puts the letters of Paul into the second century, and the Gospel material even later, towards the mid-second century. This kind of opinion, especially with the motives attributed to the creators of this literature, has the effect of making it doubtful that the subject of the texts is historical.

(3) Ken Olson, among others, has been sustaining the argument that the original text of Josephus didn't have anything written about Jesus. To me, this is the only argument from silence (outside of Christian writings) that could be really probative. Nobody expects anything more than evidence leading to a probability, and an omission by Josephus is simply that.

(4) While Doherty approaches the subject from an examination primarily of the New Testament epistles, supplementing with a few non-canonical texts, it is still available for someone to approach the subject primarily from an examination of non-canonical texts, such as the Nag Hammadi Library. I assume Doherty doesn't primarily because he wants his case to be palatable to a fairly mainstream organization of the documentary history of early Christianity. But there is a goldmine of information in these gnostic texts that is still being extracted and which, possibly, might allow for a really different interpretation of the development of things than normally assumed.

(5) Some have much to say about the parallels of Jesus to other gods, so there is a category of argument that appeals to this and places Jesus as an archetypal "dying and rising savior god" like other mystery cults. Freke and Gandy as well as Acharya S take this route, among many others.

(6) Edited to add the argument of G. A. Wells, going back to G.R.S. Mead, that the original Jesus was a figure of the murky or more ancient past. There is some evidence for such an account in the rabbinic stories about a Yeshua. Almost forgot it because this doesn't seem to find as many champions nowadays.

(7) Edited to add the idea that the New Testament and the rest was a deliberate fabrication by Romans, for completeness.

(8) Edited also to add any number of more extreme schemes that push the start of the Christian literature into the third century or beyond.

And what more? (I'm sure Richard Carrier will have more to add when his book is out, but that's not for some months.)

For the Historicity of Jesus

(1) There are two arguments that are most frequently mentioned. The first is regarding the external evidence. To flip the third argument above, many make the argument that there was a reference to Jesus in Josephus originally, and this could indeed form real evidence. They also catalogue the other references in pagan authors, although the usual reply is that this is evidence for Christian belief primarily.

(2) The second is regarding James, the brother of the Lord in Paul, also known as a brother of Jesus in other references. These references include Hegesippus and Julius Africanus, who, although at late date, do attest to people who were claiming to be related to Jesus by birth. The sources point to this group of people having leadership roles in Jerusalem. While some have, as April DeConick says, "deconstructed" this evidence to remove its impact, it is still worth mulling over.

Here most writers kind of consider it fait accompli, which I don't believe shows a lot of good faith in their approach to the discussion. Let me attempt to improvise some further points.

(3) In the synoptics (Mark 9:1 etc.) and John (the 21st chapter), as well as in similar more-developed echoes in 2 Peter, there is reference to whether Jesus announced that the end of the world would come within the lifetimes of some of the people in earshot. If we understand the situation in life of these references as belonging to communities where people were dying off who had heard the words of Jesus, prompting such concern, this would be easily accounted for if there were some Jesus to have been heard.

(4) Papias, in words quoted later by Eusebius, from his five-book Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, said that he would inquire from people who had listened to the apostles about what the deeds and sayings of Jesus were. It is difficult to understand Papias as meaning this as anything other than literally. When we also compare a similar statement in the preface of Luke, there's some evidence that people were walking around saying that they had heard or seen what Jesus said or did. This is some measure of evidence for his existence.

(5) There is some evidence that in the late first or even early second century there was still living somebody in Asia Minor who claimed to know Jesus. This comes from the internal evidence of the Gospel of John (19:35, the 21st chapter) and from the reference also to the apostle John, both from Papias and from Polycarp, as claimed by Irenaeus. While it may be tenuous or invented, it still is another point to note. (Our evidence isn't exactly "airtight" in either direction.)

(6) In the Gospel of Mark 15:21, the man named Simon of Cyrene is said to be "the father of Alexander and Rufus," an otherwise unexplained detail not picked up by the writers of Matthew and Luke. One very simple explanation for this is that Alexander and Rufus were known to the audience and that they were actual men who were the sons of Simon. This would then imply the existence of Simon as someone who was present during the crucifixion, and, thus, a historical crucifixion of Jesus.

(7) Some have argued that the Acts of the Apostles were written by a companion to Paul. If so, this would suggest that Paul knew men who knew Jesus.

(8) Some have argued against the interpretation of the epistles of Paul in any case, or for the authenticity of the passage of 1 Thessalonians that Doherty rejects (overstating how mainstream his own opinion is), which would make Paul in his epistles contradict any theory very similar to Doherty's.

And what more? Let's see if we can do better in being complete and forward about the extent of the evidence such as it is. :arrow:
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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 5:52 pm

As a cautionary tale, I will bring up this older post on Neil Godfrey's blog:

http://vridar.org/2011/04/18/the-histor ... stigation/

People who come to different opinions (or restrain their opinion) regarding our subject matter should be self-conscious of two things:

(1) The extreme difficulty of taking the evidence to mean anything in particular, due to the paucity and uneven, ambiguous nature of our sources.
(2) The fact that people who differ probably are not really that different, and certainly not enough different to support the common hostile rhetoric.

Until we recognize both things, in my opinion, the discussion doesn't really proceed in good faith.
"... almost every critical biblical position was earlier advanced by skeptics." - Raymond Brown

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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by MrMacSon » Sat Oct 05, 2013 6:29 pm

re James, the alleged brother of Jesus

1/ brother is as likely, or even more-likely, to mean a brother-in-arms; rather than a genetic-sibling.

2/ The reference in Hegesippus is to a different Jesus, as is the reference in Josephus's Antiquities 20.200
(both may even refer to the same Jesus: Jesus ben Damneus - needs to be researched more.
I think I posted on it in FRDB :( )

.................

By "original text in Josephus" are you referring to the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum" ie. Antiquities 18.3

In Dec 2012 Richard Carrier refered to
  • G.J. Goldberg, “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,”
    in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (vol. 13, 1995), pp. 59-77.
and says
Goldberg demonstrates nineteen unique correspondences between Luke’s Emmaus account and the Testimonium Flavianum, all nineteen in exactly the same order (with some order and word variations only within each item). There are some narrative differences (which are expected due to the contexts being different and as a result of common kinds of authorial embellishment), and there is a twentieth correspondence out of order (identifying Jesus as “the Christ”). But otherwise, the coincidences here are very improbable on any other hypothesis than dependence.

Goldberg also shows that the Testimonium contains vocabulary and phrasing that is particularly Christian (indeed, Lukan) and un-Josephan. He concludes that this means
  • either a Christian wrote it, or
    Josephus slavishly copied a Christian source,
and contrary to what Goldberg concludes, the latter is wholly implausible (Josephus would treat such a source more critically, creatively, and informedly).
More recently - Aug 2013 - Carrier has said
Now Ken Olson has weighed in. Olson has long advocated the hypothesis that the TF was forged and inserted by the Christian historian Eusebius (the first author ever to notice and quote the TF, in the early fourth century). He had his critics, but only just this year took them on in a devastating analysis that all but clinches his case and knocks down every argument his critics had. (Required reading on this point is now Ken Olson, “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” in Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations [Harvard University Press, 2013], pp. 97-114.)
Carrier goes on to say
Olson has blogged about how the most common arguments against Christian authorship of the TF are ironically among the best arguments for its forgery by Eusebius (a Christian): see The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus.
Finally, Carrier postulates that Pamphilus may have been the forgery, rather than Eusebius
.
Last edited by MrMacSon on Sat Oct 05, 2013 6:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by MrMacSon » Sat Oct 05, 2013 6:34 pm

There also seems to be some discussion that Luke-Acts is based on other works of Josephus, rather than Josephus being based on Luke ??

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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by outhouse » Sat Oct 05, 2013 8:03 pm

For the historicity.

Nothing to date explains the theological literature we are left with, better then a martyred man at Passover who made a selfless act for the good of the common man, that generated these legends and mythology in oral tradition and collections of written literature.

So much so, he was deified and paralleled against the living Emperors divinity, and the legend so strong, mythology grew for hundreds of years to the point of a becoming a national religious figure and the son of god himself, which later became one with, and the same substance as god.


There were socioeconomic divisions in Judaism between the rich Hellenist working hand in hand with the Romans. they held positions of power, luxury and opulence. On the other side of the coin you had the proud typical common pious hard working oppressed Jew living lives of misery.

Some of these Hellenist rich and poor had adopted Judaism but would not fully convert, yet had worshipped Judaism for generations. What better to distance themselves from Judaism then to latch on to the mythology surrounding this Galilean hero figure. Add to that the fall of the temple and the reconstruction of Pharisaic Judaism, the Hellenist had every reason to distance themselves from Judaism while keeping the monotheistic deity and the importance they found within.

You had a multicultural religion long ready for one culture to split out on its own. The timing was right.


There was no reason for Hellenist and Romans to create a hero figure from a Galilean peasant handworker living in a satellite village of Sepphoris, that amounted to the slums of Galilee.

Nothing explains the rapid spread of the movement all through the Diaspora like the hundreds of thousands of people returning home after Passover taking the legends they heard and possibly viewed with their very own eyes. WEll maybe that and the advanced road system the Romans had built making travel easy. ;)

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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 9:05 pm

MrMacSon wrote:There also seems to be some discussion that Luke-Acts is based on other works of Josephus, rather than Josephus being based on Luke ??
Yes, but not necessarily in the same context. See Carrier's discussion, supported by Steve Mason, a scholar of Josephus.
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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 9:23 pm

outhouse wrote:Nothing to date explains the theological literature we are left with, better then a martyred man at Passover who made a selfless act for the good of the common man, that generated these legends and mythology in oral tradition and collections of written literature.

...

Nothing explains the rapid spread of the movement all through the Diaspora like the hundreds of thousands of people returning home after Passover taking the legends they heard and possibly viewed with their very own eyes. WEll maybe that and the advanced road system the Romans had built making travel easy. ;)
This may be, but there were several other movements that had wide currency, which did not originate with a man doing something at the Passover. There were the sectarians of Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes). There were philosophers, who could perhaps be compared with roving musicians today who live off the support of their fans (although others despised this and used only artisanal means of support), who traveled around spreading their Cynic or Stoic or other philosophies. There were cultic associations, such as that of Mithras.

Most importantly, the very idea of a brilliant burst of activity, which lie at the origin of Christianity, is what is under review. The alternative generally proposes a process whereby Christianity sort of grew from the religious and philosophical ferment of the day, with stronger Christian memes and/or more vigorous preachers or communities gaining support against a backdrop of Hellenist-Judaic syncretism.

Perhaps it was limited to Asia Minor and Greece, Syria and Palestine, Egypt, and the area of Rome until later centuries. Some evidence exists that the Egyptian form was sufficiently different from the other forms of Christianity; our earliest evidence for Egyptian Christianity most strongly suggests that it was "Gnostic" before it was anything else (prior to the time of Clement of Alexandria) and that Gnosticism held sway there for a long time (to judge from the community who saved the Nag Hammadi texts and also from other fourth century papyri). (Not that it couldn't have held sway elsewhere too, as Egypt's deserts more than anything led to the preservation of texts.) Scholars often attempt to reconstruct the situation of the texts they read, albeit speculatively, and they have generally attributed different characteristics to the Christianity that developed in Greek-speaking Asia Minor and Greece than in the more semitically-influenced areas of Syria and Palestine. I can't really make an argument for that in this paragraph, but I want to say that the uniformity and punctiliar origin of Christianity is indeed in question.
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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 9:29 pm

MrMacSon wrote:re James, the alleged brother of Jesus

1/ brother is as likely, or even more-likely, to mean a brother-in-arms; rather than a genetic-sibling.

2/ The reference in Hegesippus is to a different Jesus, as is the reference in Josephus's Antiquities 20.200
(both may even refer to the same Jesus: Jesus ben Damneus - needs to be researched more.
I think I posted on it in FRDB :( )
These are some of the arguments, yes. Thank you for the detail.
MrMacSon wrote:By "original text in Josephus" are you referring to the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum" ie. Antiquities 18.3.
What I mean is, some people think that Josephus referred to Jesus the so-called Messiah, and some people think that Josephus did not. It's been debated for centuries, and I think we can open up a new thread for it if we want. If you think he did, you can support argument (1) in the outline for the historical Jesus. If you think he did not, you can support argument (3) in the outline against the historical Jesus. And if you don't know, then you can withhold support from both arguments.

What I'm trying to do here is really just to get a lay of the land, in terms of the arguments being used. We have this kind of catalogue in other popular debates, so I don't see why we shouldn't be able to make an encyclopedia of argumentation for this subject.
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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by Peter Kirby » Sat Oct 05, 2013 10:31 pm

Some of the arguments have been telescoped by my initial outline. For example, obviously, Doherty's argument is extensive, detailed, and not (as commonly understood) negative but also based, positively, on the language of the texts as he interprets them. But the details are important, so, like MrMacSon has done, please help fill in some of the details of this outline, or add more points from your own study.

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Re: Historicity of Jesus - the Talking Points

Post by spin » Sat Oct 05, 2013 11:26 pm

I think the basic logic of the o.p. is wrongheaded. It runs together two separate issues as though dealing with one will necessitate the other. However, when talking about the historicity of Jesus, the necessity is to establish a case for that historicity, just as arguing for a mythical Jesus requires a case made for mythicism. Defaulting from one to the other is not a matter of evidence and best explanations don't mean right explanations. One needn't support some other explanation for the existence of the Jesus narrative to seriously question the historicity of Jesus. The case for historicity is made solely on the substantive evidence.

The situation that seems to dominate is a species of maximalism of the type that has so clearly been reduced to shreds in the context of the old testament. We accept everything until you can show it is wrong, merely says that we have faith in the veracity of the sources. We are happy to arbitrarily drop the odd bits, but the substance of the story is still intact. In fact we can drop 90% of the stuff and it will still be intact. Maximalism is quite elastic that way. It has nothing to do with history, but that doesn't matter.

No, really, what matters is epistemology. It's not what you know that is the end of it all, it's how you know. We don't need to get into dying gods and sublunar mystic events here. We need to get into how you know that Jesus is historical. We have to cut through the obfuscatory nonsense of the christian hermeneutic criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation within a single tradition. We need to evaluate suspect reports in secular sources preserved by christian scribes and determine the verqacity of those reports.

I really don't care about all the mythicist stuff. To me it seems totally unfalsifiable and therefore without use in the discussion of the historicity of Jesus. What I want to know about is what necessitates us seeing that Jesus existed in the first century. Ehrman for some reason likes bringing attention to the fact that Paul met James, the brother of Jesus, yet Paul simply doesn't say any such thing. He does talk of the brother of the lord. Ehrman has already manipulated his source without even thinking about it. Not only doesn't Paul say he met with the brother of Jesus, we must find it difficult to believe that he uses the term "brother" to indicate a biological connection. He so frequently uses "brother" otherwise. We need to look at all the so-called evidence for the existence of Jesus. I haven't actually seen any. That doesn't mean that Jesus didn't exist. It means--if my perception here is correct--that we have no way of establishing his existence. Many people existed who we know nothing substantive about. Jesus may have left echoes that cannot link him to a specific historical context without negating his existence. We just may not be able to establish it.

At the same time he may not have existed at all and, for example, may have been the product of the necessities of Paul's revelation. We have no indications about Jesus prior to Paul and Paul never met Jesus, so he cannot be used as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. The messianists from Jerusalem show no knowledge of the gospel Jesus (or any living Jesus for that matter). Jesus may not have existed.

So, the task for anyone who wants to deal with the historicity of Jesus is not to assume it by default. We cannot assume he existed. We have already shed so much material from the Jesus narrative that we find suspect at least from a scholarly perspective. There is no need for any of it to reflect a real figure. To support the historicity of Jesus, you have to establish sufficient historical indications based on solid evidence and forget about arguing against some other theory.
Dysexlia lures • ⅔ of what we see is behind our eyes

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